London: A Social History "Slow Rises Worth, By Poverty Depressed"

Roy Porter

"Slow Rises Worth, By Poverty Depressed"

Context: This poem, first published anonymously in the Gentleman's Magazine for May, 1738, earned for its author the sum of ten guineas; Johnson once remarked that he had insisted upon that amount because of the price paid by the same editor, Edward Cave, to one of his rivals for a poem. The poem was written in imitation of Juvenal, using the latter's "Third Satire" as a model. It was so popular that a second publication of it appeared within a week. The first lines say that it is prompted by the departure of Thales, perhaps Johnson's friend, Richard Savage, for a pleasanter place to live than the city. Then follows a satirical portrait of the city, showing some of the faults of London and its people, faults the poet knew all too well from his own experiences there. He had come to London, as a young man, to make his way up from poverty and anonymity to some wealth and a great deal of fame, but the way up had not been easy, nor had it been easy for many of his meritorious friends. The verse paragraph in which the quotation appears shows both Johnson's thoughts and feelings born of his experience:

Has Heav'n reserv'd, in pity to the poor,
No pathless waste, or undiscover'd shore?
No secret island in the boundless main?
No peaceful desert yet unclaim'd by Spain?
Quick let us rise, the happy seats explore,
And bear Oppression's insolence no more.
This mournful truth is ev'rywhere confess'd,
Slow rises worth, by poverty depress'd:
But here more slow, where all are slaves to gold,
Where looks are merchandise, and smiles are sold;
Where won by bribes, by flatteries implor'd,
The groom retails the favours of his lord.